For stricken sailors, help awaits at Fujairah Port Medical centre

In the third of a five-part series on alternative forms of health care in the UAE, an insight into Fujairah Port Medical Centre.

United Arab Emirates - Abu Dhabi - June 9th, 2010:  Doctor  Mazhar Mustafa at Fujairah Port Medical clinic treats Ukrainian second engineer, Arseniy Belenky. The clinic treats sailors from boats that pass through Fujairah's water's.  (Galen Clarke/The National)
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FUJAIRAH // Around 200 vessels pass through the busy Fujairah Port each day. When crewmen on board occasionally fall sick, they rely on the staff at Fujairah Port Medical Centre, which, for the past 17 years, has been treating sailors travelling through the UAE.

On a hot Wednesday morning, a Ukrainian second engineer, Arseniy Belenky, 42, on board an oil tanker anchored off the Fujairah coast, complained to the doctor of problems with his hearing. "I have a problem with my ear, I can't hear anything," he said loudly. "I will be here for two weeks before moving to Kuwait and maybe Taiwan." After being evaluated, he was told to speak to his employer about getting permission to travel with an escort from the clinic to Fujairah Hospital for a follow-up.

The clinic has adapted to the ever-growing port and now has around 30,000 patient files. Exclusively for seamen, its services include yellow fever vaccination, the disposal of expired medicines, chest examinations, drug and alcohol testing and on-board emergency care. It has a radio frequency through which ships can send distress calls. If a doctor is needed on board, he must travel on a small speedboat. The journey can take up to two hours, which means in some extreme cases it is too late for the patient.

"We must go whatever the situation and weather conditions," says Dr Mazhar Mustafa, the operations manager at the clinic. "Using the radio we can offer immediate advice, but it still takes one or two hours to reach the anchorage point." Dr Sajeeb Aboobaker, a medical officer at the centre, says: "Seeing a patient in the clinic is not a big issue. But if you have to go out to see a patient on the ship, there's a lot of risk involved. I'm not a trained seaman."

The boat is launched three or four times each month. Once on board, the paramedic is to stabilise the patient and bring him to shore as quickly as possible. In the three years Dr Aboobaker has been at the centre, he has attended three dead-on-arrival cases. The doctors can travel by helicopter if it is organised by the shipping agent or owner. Many of the larger cargo ships and oil tankers anchor in Fujairah for a few months at a time. During this time the sailors are required to undertake random drug and alcohol testing, and get check-ups with the clinic doctors.

Respiratory infections, ear infections and eye and skin problems and among the common ailments. Because the sailors live in such close proximity, infections are easily spread. Jonald Gueco, 40, and his shipmate Ed Gonzalez, 33, both from the Philippines, visited the clinic for a dental check-up during their one-month anchorage. Mr Gonzalez, a father of two, boarded the Shell ship in Cairo after flying in from the Philippines. As an able-bodied seaman, he will spend six months on the ship followed by two months on land if there is someone to take his place.

"We have basic medical supplies on board but it is better to come to the clinic if you can," he says. "The only bad bit was the journey to land, it was very choppy so I wasn't well." Mr Gueco, the ship's chef and a father of three, also needed a dental check-up. After he was seen by Dr Aboobaker, both arrange another appointment to see the dentist later in the month. Despite its responsibilities, the clinic is a relatively small set-up. It employs two full-time doctors and a number of paramedics, dentists and clinical staff. It is a primary care facility, so when a more serious case comes in staff liaise with larger hospitals outside the port. If a patient requires a follow-up with a specialist, it is a complicated process. The employer needs to liaise with immigration to allow the employee to step onto UAE soil beyond the port. If allowed, the sailor then needs to be escorted by someone from the port clinic.

According to Dr Aboobaker, certain nationalities struggle to get permission unless the case is life or death. "Iraqis are generally not able to go out," he said. "Immigration will not allow them. Bangladeshis also face much tighter security." He was not able to explain why. Another major part of the clinic's work is organising drug and alcohol tests for a ship's crew on behalf of the employers. The clinic employs five collection officers who travel to the ships and collect urine samples, which are usually sent to laboratories in the UK or the US, or directly to the company. The clinic does not learn of the results.

"Of course the tests have to be random, it is a major part of what we do," Dr Mustafa says. "We sometimes do three or four collections each day. The laboratories will test for everything; cocaine, amphetamines and alcohol. Obviously narcotics are very dangerous on board, it is not that they are common, it is just essential that they are not on board." The clinic has plans to grow to keep up with Fujairah's expanding trade. A priority, says Dr Mustafa, is securing a pilot and a helicopter to use for the emergency cases.

"We do what we can but it is not always easy given the circumstances," he says. "This clinic is totally unique so we need to look at everything from a different angle."